Tribesmen on the brink
Galway 1-17 Clare 2-13
The difference between victory and defeat, between two-in-a-row dreams and semi-final nightmares? A matter of inches.
After two wildly oscillating contests, incorporating 160 minutes and many more of injury-time, we should not have been surprised that yesterday's Semple Stadium sequel came down to one defining moment.
Clare had trailed all the way until the 68th minute, when Shane O'Donnell released livewire sub Aron Shanagher for a one-on-one with James Skehill.
The Banner County trailed by one but had momentum on their backs. Galway, in an uncanny echo of eight days earlier, had seen an early nine-point cushion whittled away to almost nothing.
Shanagher's first point-blank effort was blocked; the rebound fell back to him but his scooped attempt struck the right upright, the sliotar dropped in the square and a relieved Skehill pulled on it to safety.
In the very next play, Galway won a sideline ball on the left wing. Enter Joe Canning, so centrally involved throughout, with a wondrous cut to double their lead.
The drama wasn't over but those 60 seconds encapsulated the edge-of-the-seat nature of a captivating second half. If not quite last week's classic (too many first half turnovers, far too liberal refereeing from Fergal Horgan) it was still an epic battle.
Shanagher now knows better than anyone the old adage about the six-inch differential between a slap on the back and a kick up the posterior.
In Croke Park last Saturday week, the cruciate comeback kid was sprung from the bench to score a thrilling extra-time goal. Here he could, probably should, have delivered the knockout blow to Galway's back-to-back ambitions.
Yet, even in anguished one-point defeat, Clare's joint-manager, Donal Moloney, summoned the wherewithal and good grace to put that pivotal moment into perspective.
"Six weeks ago a post helped us out here in Thurles against Tipperary," he said, harking back to the moment that turned their season when Tipp's Jake Morris hit the upright and Clare went straight up the pitch to score an Ian Galvin goal.
"There's swings and roundabouts in a season," Moloney mused.
"I always kind of knew maybe that would come back at some point and unfortunately it did today.
"Who knows, even if that went in, Galway are such a magnificent team that they might have still come with a point to bring it in to extra-time. You don't know if that would have been the difference."
A penny for the thoughts of Micheál Donoghue as Shanagher got possession?
"I had a little palpitation all right," the Galway boss admitted. "He's a massive player for them. Made a huge impact last week. Made a great start when he got the point (with his first touch).
"But I think our boys worked hard, identified the threat, worked in numbers. They are the fine margins."
Those fine margins now see Galway through to an August 19 decider with Limerick. In truth, those same margins continued even beyond Canning's eighth point from that line cut.
John Conlon pointed from the next puckout. Then, in the 71st minute, Peter Duggan's deadball radar deserted him at the worst time, his 50m attempt failing to rise sufficiently to avoid a Galway stick.
All told, some six additional minutes of unbearable tension yielded just a point apiece - Niall Burke for Galway cancelled by a Duggan free awarded after David Burke's dangerously high tackle levelled Shanagher. The Galway skipper can count himself lucky to escape with a yellow that, under rule, cannot be revisited.
Clare had one final chance to force extra-time but, symptomatic of his day, Tony Kelly's long delivery veered beyond Shanagher's reach and wide.
The champions now have a fortnight for fatigued bodies (and injured ones, in the case of Gearóid McInerney) to mend.
They are favourites with the bookies but Limerick won't be scared on this latest topsy-turvy evidence. Once more they exploded from the traps and led by 1-9 to 0-3 after Johnny Glynn flicked a route-one delivery into his own paw and batted one-handed to the net. That came in the 21st minute; by then, Galway's greater intensity, half-back dominance and far lower error-count had taken the shredder to Clare's tactical reprise of Colm Galvin as sweeper.
And yet Galway wouldn't score for another 20 minutes, until the ever-menacing Conor Whelan landed his third point.
That barren period gave the Banner a lifeline; two different but equally magical goals from O'Donnell (a 43rd minute solo run special past three men) and Duggan (a 53rd minute thunderbolt) cut Clare's deficit to one. So close, so far away...